Liturgy Matters — Health concerns at Mass

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock

Today there is heightened concern regarding the transmission of disease in public gathering spaces. Hand sanitizers are in pockets and purses. Supermarkets provide antiseptic wipes to clean the handles of shopping carts. This concern for the spread of harmful germs has also affected parishes, especially with the close encounters we have with one another during the liturgy.

When a large number of people gather in one place, the risk of illness from airborne pathogens or from direct contact, increases significantly. Knowing this, people still go shopping, still attend concerts and ballgames, and still go to Mass on Sundays. Most come away from them without contracting an illness.

What advice is given to address these concerns at the parish level?

Experts tell us that the doorknobs to the church are the most likely place to contaminate our hands. Then when we touch our faces, our eyes, our mouths, our noses, we test our immune systems. The recommendation is to have hospitality ministers open the doors for those coming to Mass, particularly during flu season or a specific local outbreak of some illness. Not only is this hospitable but it can also be a way to curb the spread of disease.

Catholics may say, never mind the doors, what about the exchange of peace and sharing a common chalice? Even though a handshake is the gesture most commonly exchanged during the sign of peace, the handshake is not required. If one has a compromised immune system, or arthritis that makes a handclasp painful, or some other reason for avoiding hand contact, it is perfectly acceptable to offer some other gesture of peace, such as a slight bow or smile or perhaps even to say the words without an additional gesture.

For some Catholics, drinking from a common chalice is most worrisome. Weren’t we taught from a very early age not to drink after one another? Some think it would be better if we modeled ourselves after other denominations that provide individual little cups for the grape juice they distribute. However, for Catholics, sharing the chalice of the Precious Blood is foundational to our eucharistic theology: one bread and one cup. Christ’s Body and Blood is broken and shared so that we may be one in Christ.

Experts tell us that the procedure we use to distribute from the chalice is remarkably safe. Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (EMHC) are instructed to wipe the rim of the chalice, both inside and out with the cloth called a purificator after each communicant drinks from the chalice.

The minister uses a different spot on the purificator for each communicant then turns the vessel a quarter turn for the next person. These careful practices help to safeguard health.

Nonetheless, if the communicant is ill or has a weakened immune system; he/she may want to receive holy Communion only under the form of the Sacred Host.

Transmission of germs also comes up in another related circumstance during the distribution of holy Communion. Many families come forward to receive Communion bringing with them babes in arms or children too young to receive. What is the appropriate response to these infants and young children?

To respond in a pastoral manner, the Communion minister acknowledges the child with a warm smile, and may say, “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you” or the like. It is not appropriate to place a hand on the child or to offer some gesture of blessing. We would never think of placing our hand on an adult’s face or in their hair and then picking up the Sacred Host and placing in someone’s hand or mouth.

Yet when it comes to children this reluctance seems to vanish. Parents and grandparents know that babes in arms and young toddlers frequently wear their bodily fluids on the outside.

In the training for EMHC these ministers are advised to keep their hands on the vessels they are holding. This manner of greeting not only provides a Christ-like response but also respects the ministry they are called to do: to safely and reverently distribute the Sacred Host and the Precious Blood.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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